Who is responsible and what are the problems?

Canadian water expert Steve Hrudey speaks with about how the nation's water safety stacks up 10 years after Walkerton.

On Sunday, May 16, residents of Walkerton, Ont., gathered together to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the infamous water crisis that killed seven people and sickened nearly half of the community.

The cover of the "Report of the Walkerton Inquiry" that was released in Walkerton, Ont. on Friday Jan. 18, 2002. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The tragedy followed a five-day rainstorm that washed cow manure into a cracked town well, contaminating the water with E. coli bacteria. 

In the wake of Walkerton, communities across Canada took stock of their drinking water.

And while it would be nice to think that problems such as this are a thing of the past,  the truth is that hundreds of boil-water advisories are enacted every year.

Steve Hrudey, a water expert and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, sat on the Walkerton inquiry panel, a group of experts and community leaders who were asked to examine this particular outbreak and advise all levels of government how to prevent similar occurrences.

Hrudey spoke with CBC's Laura Busch about Canadian water safety since Walkerton and the kinds of improvements that still need to be made to ensure access to safe drinking water.  

Busch: Just how safe is drinking water in Canada?

Hrudey: Basically, how safe water is depends on where you are. It's not just by province or jurisdiction, it's mainly by size of community.

We still have a system in Canada where responsibility for water is downloaded to municipalities. And at that level of government, they're not the most financially equipped to deliver something so sophisticated and challenging.

There certainly have been improvements since Walkerton but some of these improvements have kind of misunderstood what Walkerton was.

Specifically in Ontario, where we have hundreds and hundreds of pages of regulations, that doesn't solve the small community problem. If anything, it just makes it worse.

Busch: What are the biggest challenges in giving all Canadians access to safe water?

Hrudey: I can't speak for every large city in Canada but, the ones that I know of, I don't think there are any serious safety issues.

But when you get into the smaller communities, you just don't have the resources — or in some cases the will — to take on the responsibility.

Canada and the U.S. are a little different than the rest of the developed world in that regard. If you go to the U.K. or you go to Australia, or Germany, France and so on, they tend to have large water companies. 

In some cases [the water companies are] government owned or government controlled, and in others they are private.  So they tend to have competence. 

If you're looking for the one specific theme that matters in this regard, it is competence.

Busch: Does it matter who owns the water company?

Hrudey: When we were asked at the Walkerton inquiry about public versus private, to some extent that's a red herring. 

Steve Hrudey, a water expert and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, sat on the Walkerton inquiry panel. (Photo courtesy of the Canadian Water Network)

I mean, that obviously matters to unions and people who worry about the private sector versus public, but the bottom line in terms of drinking water safety is simply whether you are competent.

Whether you're publicly owned or privately owned doesn't guarantee that you're competent. 

So, we have a regulatory system in Canada across the board, which ensures competence in Canada, but not as well as we should.

The focus is more on publishing a numerical standard for water activity, which is the primary activity of the government organization that sets the guidelines.

It's up to the provinces and territories to set the rules for the licencing and operation of a water treatment plant, and so you have water variability across the country. 

But the emphasis is largely on regulatory compliance with the numbers rather than a focus on training and support to ensure competence. And, you know, it's the training and competence thing that is the biggest concern.

Busch: So, which communities face the biggest challenges?

Hrudey: All small isolated communities have a challenge with safe water. You have to start from that premise. 

So, whether they're First Nations or otherwise, if you're small and isolated, you're going to have a challenge.

Beyond that, when you start comparing between First Nations and other communities, First Nations have some advantages and have major disadvantages. 

The advantage is that natives have the Department of Indian Affairs, which tries to provide some overall guidance on what you're trying to achieve. They provide funding for water treatment plants and some funding for operations.

So, when you're comparing one small isolated community to another, a First Nations community might actually have an advantage in terms of their water treatment plant compared to a non-native community.

The flipside of it is that you're dealing with a large bureaucracy that is largely attuned to spending money on water treatment plants and less well equipped to deal with the training and operations side of things — which, as I've pointed out, are more important.

Busch: What can average Canadians do to ensure that they are safe?

Hrudey: I think the first issue — and this is a challenge to Canadians — is to put your money where your mouth is.

If you're worried about safe water, then the first thing you have to do is value safe water. There are far too many people in Canada who will say that safe water is a right and are really equating that with the opinion it should be free or cheap. 

Walkerton Mayor Charles Bagnato walks past a dedication rock memorial at the Walkerton Heritage Water Garden during a memorial ceremony in Walkerton, Ont., on Sunday, May 16, 2010. (Nathan Denette/the Canadian Press)

But, you know, it does cost money to treat water to ensure it's safe. And it costs money to monitor to ensure the water remains safe.

So, if you're not prepared to put a true value on the cost of safe water, then you're not going to be assured that you have it. And so, I think that's an underlying issue. 

There are lots of communities that have great operators who take their jobs seriously and so on, but that's not universal across the board.

Because there are far too many places where the person who has to run the water treatment plant is also responsible for cleaning the streets and catching dogs and everything else.  And he's paid minimum wage and so, you know, as long as those kinds of things are an issue, problems will likely continue.

Busch: Who is responsible for making sure that municipal water is safe to consume?

Hrudey: Under our constitutional framework, it is the provincial governments that are individually responsible and I think they would tell you that. 

But it's a question of where do they put their emphasis? Do they put it on hiring lawyers and inspectors and prosecuting people? Or do they put it into training and programs to ensure that operators are paid appropriately for the fact that they are holding the health of their entire community in their hands.

 So, when you look at it from that perspective, when you pay people minimum wage or low wages for doing something that important, that's not very smart.